Careful What You Wish For

Reluctant Warrior Jerry Brown Goes Unchallenged in Democratic Primary for Governor

When Dianne Feinstein called Jerry Brown last week to say she’d firmly decided not to seek the Democratic nomination for governor, his first reaction was disappointment: He was kind of hoping she would run, Brown said, so he didn’t have to.

Brown’s only-half-kidding quip in the private conversation, recounted in the Orange County Register, reflected the daunting pair of political challenges he will face as his party’s nominee in the general election: Even as 2010 shapes up as the most treacherous political landscape for Democrats in a generation, Brown knows he’ll be matched against a super-rich Republican foe, equipped for the task of trashing him on statewide TV with tens of millions of dollars of his or her own fortune.

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A surprise to no one, Senator Feinstein’s public demurrer of candidacy for the governorship was nonetheless long awaited by political insiders, not least of all Attorney General Brown, who’d withheld his own announcement pending a clear signal from her. His path is now clear for a walkover victory in the Democratic primary. It’s a dead certainty that in the general election, however, Brown will be easily outspent by an order of magnitude, by either Republican frontrunner Meg Whitman or her chief rival, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, in a campaign framed by expensive broadcast advertising.

Brown is sitting on a $13-million campaign fund he’s raised while pursuing a Zen strategy of running for governor by not running. However, that’s a pittance compared to what either Whitman — who’s already contributed nearly $20 million to her primary effort — or Poizner — who’s written himself a down-payment, $15-million check — can afford without the drudgery of day-in, day-out campaign fundraising.

Add to this the fact that a strong anti-Democrat, anti-incumbent wave is building across the nation, according to a host of independent polls, and the political calculus looks much more problematic for Brown than it did even six months ago.

Independence Day: With Brown restricted by contribution limits on outside donors, which don’t apply to candidates kicking in their own money, two so-called independent expenditure committees have sprung up in recent days to aid his cause.

The “IEs,” as they’re known, are third-party operations that are legally permitted to raise unlimited cash to use on behalf of candidates. But they’re prohibited from consulting with the contenders on how they intend to use the money, or on other strategy issues. As a political matter, the purpose of an IE is less to win an election than to put the opponent of a favored candidate on the defensive, with aggressive attacks.

The more visible group so far is called Level the Playing Field, which is run by some top California consultants, who are not working for Brown’s campaign, on behalf of several Democratic labor and interest groups. They quickly have put up two radio ads, including one called “Kaaa-ching,” a 60-second spot attacking Whitman for lavish corporate pay and perks when she was CEO of eBay. “There shouldn’t be a ‘Buy It Now’ button on the California governor’s office,” the ad concludes.

Both Level the Playing Field and the second group, called California Working Families, have said they will raise $20 million for their efforts, an ambitious, if not delusional, financial goal.

Despite questions about the IEs’ fundraising, Whitman’s campaign seized on the specter of union attacks, in a bid to now clear the Republican primary field as well. Former governor Pete Wilson, her campaign chairperson, issued a statement calling on Poizner to quit the race in the interest of “party unity.”

Poizner’s communications director had a rather pointed response: “I’ve read about dictators who try to stop free elections, but I never thought I’d see someone try that strategy in California. Steve Poizner favors freedoms that make America great, like freedom of the press and the right to vote, so we’re going to go ahead and have an election where the voters get to choose their nominee.”

Why didn’t you go with the pink polo shirt? In an amusing clash over campaign optics, both Whitman and Poizner showed up in Fontana during the weekend, to work the huge crowd at two big NASCAR races. Amid her effort to court blue-collar conservatives, Whitman drew the ire of the NASCAR fashion police by waving the green flag at Saturday’s race wearing a Burberry raincoat. Poizner arrived the next day in a slightly more appropriate blue windbreaker, emblazoned with a California YMCA logo.

There were no injuries.


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